More vegetables, better broth? We tasted a slew of products and discovered that, in most cases, the answer is no.
Published Jan. 1, 2015. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 16: Vegetarian Essentials
If chicken broth is supposed to taste like chicken, and beef broth like beef, it stands to reason that vegetable broth should taste like vegetables. After all, this ingredient’s core purpose is the same as that of any other broth: to augment the flavors of and add depth to dishes such as soups, stews, sauces, and risottos. Vegetable broth is also often called on as a meatless stand-in for the chicken or beef kind—and while it shouldn’t taste like meat, it should provide a complex, balanced, unassuming backbone of flavor to a wide range of dishes.
The problem is that most commercial vegetable broths do neither of those things. When we tasted 10 products several years ago, we found that the vast majority were awful—sour, cloyingly sweet, or bitter. In fact, we could recommend only one product from that tasting, a broth from Swanson that was loaded with salt (940 milligrams per cup, about 40 percent of your daily allowance) and a slew of flavor-boosting additives.
Since then, however, dozens more vegetable broth products have popped up on supermarket shelves. Like commercial meat-based broths, these are sold not just in liquid form but also as powders, pastes, concentrates, and cubes. Would any of these new products be worthier of a place in our pantry?
Overwhelmed by the options, we scooped up 25 nationally available products that represented every style category. (We also held a separate tasting of low-sodium vegetable broths; see related content.) Most were billed as vegetable broths, while four bore labels reading “no chicken” or “vegan chicken flavored,” indicating that they are engineered to be meatless imitations of poultry-based products. We then narrowed the pack, eliminating broths that had more than 750 milligrams of sodium per serving and holding taste-offs within brands. In the end, we had 10 finalists, which we sampled warmed up straight from the package (when products needed to be reconstituted, we followed manufacturer directions), as well as in vegetable soup and Parmesan risotto. The last application, where the broth reduces considerably during cooking, would be a good measure of its flavor when concentrated.
Our hope that these products were any better than the last lot dimmed with our first sips of plain broth. Though the broths ranged dramatically in color and body, in the main they fell into two broad flavor categories: those that tasted “weirdly savory,” with “super MSG impact,” and those with actual vegetable flavor, albeit mostly unappealing. At best, these latter broths tasted bland (like “dishwater”); at worst, they ranged from overly bitter to horribly sweet (like “stewed socks and sugar”) to downrig...
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Lisa is an executive editor for ATK Reviews, cohost of Gear Heads on YouTube, and gadget expert on TV's America's Test Kitchen.